When it was launched in 1989, the “Water is Life” project initially set out to construct 44 wells, and subsequently increased this target to 400. In the meantime it has installed more than 1,500 wells that provide around 450,000 people with clean drinking water. This is of course a highly pleasing accomplishment, but the need for more wells remains enormous: Around 60 percent of the more than 22 million inhabitants of Cameroon still do not have access to clean drinking water. Requests from rural communities for the construction of wells are still being received almost every day in Otélé. The “Water is Life” project is able to construct between 40 and 50 wells a year.
In addition to the construction of new wells, the maintenance of existing ones is an important activity for the project personnel. Every day, several teams set out for the purpose of inspecting the existing wells, and carrying out maintenance and repairs as necessary.
By no means all the inhabitants of the rainforest regions of Cameroon are aware of the fact that contaminated water causes numerous diseases. In view of this, the inhabitants of rural communities that are provided with drinking water wells are also given information about the importance of clean water. The project personnel also emphasise the necessity to keep the surroundings of the well clean and operate the pump in the correct manner. Each community is required to nominate people who are responsible for the well and for reporting any problems to the project team.
Otélé is situated approximately 60 kilometres to the southwest of Yaoundé, the capital of Cameroon, and comprises numerous small settlements spread throughout the rainforest. The drinking water project is based in the suburb of Nkolmelen, which can be roughly translated as “Palm Tree Hill”. Approximately 4,000 people live in Otélé and its surroundings. Otélé has two kindergartens, three primary schools, a high school, a theological college with 150 students, and a small hospital.
The infrastructure of the project comprises a factory for the production of the various elements for the wells, a repair workshop, offices, a canteen and accommodation for the personnel, vehicles for transporting the elements to the construction sites, plus an own drinking water and power supply. The “Water is Life” project is managed by Swiss personnel and employs around 65 local workers. All its activities are coordinated from Otélé. These activities are carried out in a rainforest region that encompasses approximately 30,000 square kilometres of often very rough terrain. By way of comparison, the surface area of Switzerland is 41,290 square kilometres.
The “Water is Life” project, or “Projet Eau Potable” as it is known locally, was launched on the initiative of Urs Egli, a Benedictine priest from Engelberg, who died in 2015. During his time as a missionary in Otélé from 1955 to 2012, he found himself confronted with a high infant mortality rate and a population that was in very poor health. One of the main causes of the widespread infectious diseases was contaminated water, which the inhabitants scooped from open bodies of water and puddles.
Father Urs Egli’s idea was to provide villagers with access to the supply of clean water deep under the ground by constructing simple but robust wells.
The St. Martin Foundation is an independent Swiss aid organisation that secures the financing of drinking water projects. In order to continue the activities of the “Water is Life” project in Cameroon, it relies on donations from companies, organisations and private individuals.